Remarks by Eileen Sheehy - 2013 Montana Teacher of the Year  


 Eileen Sheehy

Montana Teacher of the Year Celebration, Oct. 17, 2013

I am so glad to have two brand new teachers with us tonight. When they told me they were coming, it made me think about what I might want to say tonight that would resonate with a new teacher. And I thought I could boil my 30 years of teaching wisdom down to 2 things:

They’re longer things. And they might seem like unsolicited advice. But for the next 10 minutes, I’m the teacher of the year, so I get to advise.

1. Teaching – if you get it right – is not going to be what you expect it to be. Some days it’s going to be worse. But over the breadth of your career, if you listen carefully for the right lessons and let the other stuff go, it will be immeasurably better than you expect.

My own progress from expectation to serendipity went something like this:

First, I should not tell you this Nathan, but I was probably the most uninspired student teacher of all time. I student taught at Hellgate High School, about a block from my apartment on Daly and Higgins, the coolest apartment ever in Missoula, and I would wander over to Hellgate when I was supposed to be there, but I don’t recall my student teaching interfering with my real avocations, sunbathing and watching soap operas. It turned out there was no money in either of those, so I went ahead and sought a teaching job.

When I first started teaching, it was just like I expected it to be. I knew some stuff my students didn’t. They had to know it to pass the class. I taught it. They either learned it or didn’t. Some kids seemed to like me pretty well, and I liked them, too, so I thought I was a pretty good teacher.

I’d been teaching about 5 years when my district sent me to the vocational high school to teach US History and Government. Those are not the classes that put the magnet into a vocational magnet school. Those kids did not seem interested in history or government at all. It did not help that I did not know anything about cars, stereo systems, underground sprinklers, welding, wiring, painting, spackling, or grunge rock. . . In fact, I did not know one thing that could make me credible to my students. In what I considered the upside-down world of the Career Center, I was the dumbest teacher in the building. The dumbest.

I had a lot to learn. And I remember exactly when that learning began. I was teaching World War I and students were reading about Big Bertha in their textbook. A kid looked up and said, “That thing could fire a Cadillac from here to Laurel!” Now, I thought that World War I was about failed alliances, the majestic rise and fall of empire, and violent gruesome death on a large scale. It had never occurred to me that one element of that war’s deadly machinery could be understood in such real terms. It may seem like it was late in the game for the “teacher of the year” to figure out that she was not teaching history, she was teaching kids. And if she didn’t start hearing them, she was not going to teach them much.

It was not what I expected. It turned out they had all kinds of stuff they could teach me. Like if you open the back driver’s side window along with the driver’s side window, your hair won’t blow all around. They introduced me to the conspiracy theory that Courtney Love had Curt Cobain killed. Sometimes they would read me the auto section of the classified ads and make me guess the asking price. They took a great interest in my 1986 Taurus station wagon, and taught me the acronym Fix Or Repair Daily. Can you believe a grown woman did not know that? I learned enough that one day I walked into the office at the Career Center and had one of my favorite moments of my whole career: I pointed at something on the counter, and said, “What’s that alternator doing on the counter?” And it was an alternator.

Eventually, listening to these kids, learning from them, I became a much more grounded teacher, and I even earned Board Certification while teaching at the Career Center.

2. My second tip is obvious at a convention like this one. Meet other teachers. Get to know the teachers in your school. Partner with teachers across the state you meet at this convention. Seek out those opportunities that allow you to meet teachers from across the nation.

The teachers you meet will be people who love to learn, love to socialize, love to have fun. Who else but teachers would know all the verses to “This Land Is Your Land,” even the kind of commie ones, and sing them on a bus on their way to Monticello on a bus on July 4th? Who else but teachers would sing the theme songs to TV shows in alphabetical order while floating down the Shenandoah River in inner tubes? Teachers always want to take in the sights, and have fun doing it, all the while learning something.

I’d say, some of my best friends are teachers, but in fact all of my best friends are teachers. You know when I said, “Sometimes teaching will be worse than you expect?” That’s when you need those other teachers. Your spouse does what he can, but only another teacher is going to understand the depth of truth in a long and detailed story that ends with something that could seem completely indefensible, but you both know it’s true.

Not only are your colleagues your best support when the chips are down, earning the respect of your near colleagues is one of the greatest joys of your professional life. Once I mentioned to my Career Center colleagues that the only people who got any respect at the Career Center were the ones in shop coats. Several years later, those colleagues honored me with a shop coat of my own. Embroidered over the left pocket it says, “Ms. Sheehy/Shop Guy.”

I love that shop coat, even today, because it stands for one of the best successes you can have as a teacher – to be valued by your colleagues as a member of their team.

Finally, teachers are some of the most interesting people you will ever know. Have you noticed that no matter what sectionals you attend at the convention, you are always in awe of the accomplishments and interests of the presenters?

Just look at the three people we are honoring tonight:

Paul Swenson, an Olympic athlete who has a master’s degree in Physics from Stanford University who could not leave behind his beloved home state, Montana. Paul gave up a very sweet job at Billings West High School to follow his dream of teaching small groups of students a curriculum he himself designed, with the mountains of Montana as his classroom. I knew Paul as a scientist and colleague, but I also knew and admired him as a devoted husband and father to his two daughters and one son. Paul is the kind of colleague that leaves a hole in the faculty when he goes, and we miss him, but we know he needs the teaching he can accomplish at Lone Peak.

Jan Krieger, another athlete and outdoorsman, whose interest in and openness to other cultures is evident in the singular way he has lived his life. Jan has managed to live in Argentina, Mexico and Honduras while maintaining a 27 year career in education, thus allowing his children to grow up both truly bilingual and truly bicultural. Tonight, as we know, he is pursuing his love of Spanish in Nicaragua. He has succeeded in passing his love of the wide world on to his children, one of whom is studying in China this year.

Finally, the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, Anna Baldwin. A native of Virginia, Anna holds a BA from Georgetown University and has passed her avid fandom of the Hoyas on to her two Montana children. While teaching full time in Arlee, raising her children and attending to her husband’s pottery business, Anna found the time and energy to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Montana. She is a recognized authority on teaching Indian Education for All in Montana, and is the subject of the documentary “In Anna’s Classroom,” a how-to for Indian Education.

It has been my honor to serve as the 2013 Montana Teacher of the Year. I thank all the people who have made this wonderful year possible for me, especially the Montana Education Foundation, and the marvelous “No Drama” Donna Graveley.

Congratulations, Anna, on your many achievements. I am sure you will enjoy the wonderful year you have ahead of you!